OSH, Kyrgyzstan (Reuters) - Kyrgyzstan’s security forces clashed with ethnic Uzbeks on Monday in the south of the former Soviet republic, where up to 2,000 people were killed in a wave of bloodletting earlier this month.
Rights groups said four people were killed and more than 20 wounded when Kyrgyz forces raided an Uzbek village near Osh, epicentre of the ethnic clashes that broke out on June 10.
The authorities put the death toll at two, saying law enforcement forces had run into “armed resistance.”
Speaking during a visit to nearby Jalalabad, Kyrgyz interim leader Roza Otunbayeva pledged to press ahead with a referendum on a new constitution on Sunday despite security concerns.
“Holding this referendum has become necessary because we must create a legal framework,” said Otunbayeva, who came to power after a revolt in April toppled the country’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
“If we allow any delays, this will threaten us with further instability,” added Otunbayeva, who needs the referendum as a stepping stone towards presidential and parliamentary elections.
This month’s bloodshed destroyed entire neighbourhoods and sent 400,000 people fleeing for the Uzbek border, where they are living with little food in squalid camps.
The United States and Russia, which both operate military air bases in Kyrgyzstan, are concerned that unrest could spread into other parts of Central Asia, a former Soviet region lying on a major drug-trafficking route out of nearby Afghanistan.
Mainly Uzbek households were attacked during the three days of unrest earlier in June. Locals said state troops, comprising mainly ethnic Kyrgyz soldiers, did little to protect them and in some cases took part in attacks.
Otunbayeva suggested law-enforcement and security personnel still loyal to Bakiyev had participated in the violence.
“We have been left with a demoralized police force, stuffed with Bakiyev personnel... We have security forces, many of whom joined one side in this conflict in the south,” she said in an interview with Russian daily Izvestia published on Monday.
The United States has called for an international probe. Bakiyev has denied any role in fomenting the violence.
Tolekan Ismailova, a prominent human rights campaigner, said government security forces swept through the village of Nariman, near Osh, on Monday in response to the killing of a policeman last week. She said they used rifle butts to beat people and some local men had been taken away.
Ole Solvang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Reuters by telephone from a hospital in Osh: “The military have been going around doing checks ... and looking for weapons. A lot of people have been beaten up.”
An interim government spokesman based in the Osh area said government forces had come under attack in Nariman. “According to preliminary information, two civilians died,” he said.
While the official death toll is 208, Otunbayeva has said 10 times as many people may have been killed in this month’s violence.
Her tiny, under-equipped army has struggled to bring order to the south and security worries have prevented relief organisations reaching the worst-affected areas.
Bakiyev loyalists in law enforcement “have come together like a fist to resist the new government,” Otunbayeva told Izvestia.
Otunbayeva says her government is capable of holding the referendum but some in Kyrgyzstan have called on her to put it off. Some fear holding the vote could trigger more unrest.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said it would not send short-term observers to Kyrgyzstan for the referendum for security reasons.
“I have called on the government to postpone the referendum,” said Edil Baisalov, Otunbayeva’s former chief of staff, who resigned two weeks ago and set up his own party.
“It is not only morally wrong but it’s also politically disastrous to push ahead with the referendum ... All in all law enforcement (agents) and the military were not prepared to deal with this conflict.”
Additional reporting by Olga Dzyubenko, Maria Golovnina in Bishkek and Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana; writing by Robin Paxton and Maria Golovnina; editing by Peter Graff